If one was tasked with finding a theme as the Los Angeles Lakers opened the preseason Sunday evening — outside of LeBron James making his debut — it would probably be the number of lineup combinations Luke Walton trotted out against the Denver Nuggets.
Of all the lineup choices he went with, the position that drew the most attention was the centers outside of JaVale McGee (who looked good, it should be pointed out) and more specifically, that he opted to us Kyle Kuzma there after only experimenting with him playing the position in training camp prior to Sunday.
Walton was asked about what he saw from his second-year wing in those stretches Monday after practice, and while it wasn’t perfect, he liked what he saw (Via Joey Ramirez of Lakers.com)
“There were a few fundamental breakdowns of how we want to play the defense from that spot, but his effort was there. He wants the challenge again, and we’re gonna give it to him again.”
Walton is absolutely correct about Kuzma’s effort. If anything, it looked like he was pushing a little too hard, resulting in four personal fouls. This is going to be a process for Kuzma, who will consistently be undersized this season if he keeps playing at center.
Not only was Kuzma playing center for stretches, but whenever he was on the court with LeBron, he was consistently starting defensive sets against the bigger of their two matchups. We’ll see if that trend continues, but it did strike me as interesting given how much larger James is than Kuzma.
If Walton sticks with that moving forward, it’s probably to save James from the physicality of the power forward or center positions, which makes some sense.
After the game, McGee — the Lakers’ one NBA-caliber, traditionally-sized center — was asked if he had any advice for Kuzma or other teammates who are being asked to guard bigger players, and his answer was very insightful.
“Be fast rather than strong,” McGee said. “I feel like big men don’t like it when they’re getting fronted by smaller guys and they’re just staying real, real aggressive.”
McGee has faced off against smaller guys, so his answer is probably based a lot on what has given him problems in the past. He’s had to scrimmage against Draymond Green in practices the last couple years, after all.
The Lakers kind of need Kuzma to work as a small-ball five to unlock the style of play they seem to prefer. Sure, James could fulfill that role, but minutes spent at that position are going to be highly taxing, and based on Sunday (and this will probably change in the regular season when games actually matter), he doesn’t want to play down there unless he absolutely has to. Michael Beasley had some fairly solid minutes at center Sunday, but he doesn’t have the offensive explosiveness that Kuzma showed last year.
Walton thinks that if Kuzma can make it work, then those lineups could be dynamic for the Lakers.
“Offensively, it would be great for us if Kuz could handle that. We could get out and fly and run and space the floor. But we don’t know yet.”
Beasley makes some sense as a small-ball five and I’m sure we’ll see him there plenty, but as Walton says, if Kuzma can figure this out, the Lakers could have one of the most potent offensive lineups in the entire NBA.
Imagine a lineup of Lonzo Ball, either Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, LeBron and Kuzma. For short stretches, that group makes a ton of sense, but only if Kuzma can hold his own on the other end. They’ll need stops to run as much as they want to, and while the hope would be to turn teams over with pressure on the perimeter, every so often they’ll need to rebound. That’ll be Kuzma’s (or Beasley/James’) biggest test.
Luke Walton seems to think Kuzma is up to it, though, and it will be exciting to see if he’s right.